Online participation & digital literacies

When I was a high school science teacher in the mid-2000s, my colleagues would often joke that quite a few of the so-called “digital natives”1 in our classes did not seem to be very good at using basic computer equipment or finding stuff on the internet. Somehow, the simple fact of being born at a time when computers and internet access were commonplace did not seem to have been enough to give them excellent technical skills or a critical approach to evaluating information online. Why did we, who had grown up without smart phones or the internet, seem to have a better grasp on this stuff than them? Had it been, after all, possible to acquire these skills through practice? Was it, then, possible to teach them? And whose job was that?

It is possible to teach this stuff, and we are already doing it. But when we ask our students to find a document in a shared folder, or to look on Twitter for a hashtag, or to look for resources online, I think we have to be mindful that we are asking them to cross into a different mode of work. Their level of literacy in this mode cannot be taken for granted. In addition to basic technical skills, digital literacies include how we communicate online, how we construct our identities in online spaces, and how we separate personal and professional activity in the digital age. We should build in extra time in our workload calculations to allow for this variation in digital literacies, and to teach those literacies. Quantifying the time cost of digital work in this way makes it even more important to explicitly identify the benefits of using online methods for learning—both in terms of individual digital tools, and in terms of the general trend towards online work and away from other modes of work.

However we start that conversation with our students, it’s important to avoid the temptation to focus solely on the technical aspects of digital literacy. It can be very anxiety-inducing to be asked to use a new digital tool. Have you ever sent an email and wished you could un-send it? What about a physical letter in the mail? One of the sources of anxiety about being online is that something composed quickly can become indelible in ways that seem less possible in physical interactions. Every time we interact socially, we make ourselves up anew; we use gesture and language to perform a version of ourselves. If a joke goes wrong, or an embarrassing nuance is revealed, then we can repair it. But how do we “do repair”2 in social media?3,4 Is it different from public speaking, or other “on the record” speech acts? Another source of anxiety comes from how we establish social boundaries online. The boundary between personal and professional digital presence is one that we renegotiate daily. Sometimes I work from home. I might even send a work email on a Sunday morning. But I don’t want to get a work Whatsapp message on a Sunday morning. I want to control how my professional life overlaps with my private life. To do that, I need to have all the awareness and confidence that I would in the physical world in order to negotiate my boundaries, plus enough technical skills to manage my online presence in a way that is consistent with what I want. This is not easy. And it’s not easy for our students either.

  1. Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon, 9(5), 1–6.
  2. Schegloff, E. A., G. Jefferson & H. Sacks (1977). The preference for self-correction in the organization of repair in conversation. Language, 53, 361–382.
  3. Schönfeldt, J., & A. Golato (2003). Repair in chats: A conversation analytic approach. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 36, 241–284.
  4. Ronson, J. (2015). So you’ve been publicly shamed. London: Picador.

One thought on “Online participation & digital literacies

  1. I so agree with your comments John. I did Prensky’s article very limiting in many ways. When I look at myself and what I knew about digital platforms when I was teaching there was a remarkable gap between my students and I in terms of digital literacy and yet he uses age as deciding factor in his article.


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